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Guide to deaf awareness in new world of remote working

Clare Vale, Managing Director - Sign Solutions

Coronavirus has forced many businesses to work remotely, and now, as the lockdown is gradually easing, both employers and staff are raring to get back to their normal places of work.

For others, the shift could be a more permanent change, as those already under pressure to tightly manage costs have realised the financial benefits of a remote workforce. In fact, three quarters of CFOs surveyed said they expect some of their employees to remain remote after the pandemic ends[1].

For many Deaf employees, the adjustment to working remotely has been problematic, with a lack of digital accessibility inhibiting them from doing their jobs properly. It is therefore crucial employers take the necessary steps to ensure a permanent work-from-home structure is manageable for all employees. Here are some of the main things for them to keep in mind.

Making reasonable adjustments

Under The Equality Act 2010, all employers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for Deaf staff members so they are not put at a disadvantage with non-disabled people, and agreed reasonable adjustments for home-based working still apply during and after the pandemic.

The term ‘reasonable adjustment’ is open to interpretation, but the aim must be, as far as possible, to remove or reduce any disadvantage faced by Deaf worker(s). The necessary changes will depend on the company’s size, the type of work the Deaf employee carries out and the available financial support, but employers must be prepared to make any adjustments so their Deaf employee can fulfil their duties just as well as any other worker.

Understanding Deaf employees’ needs

After several weeks of remote working, employers should already be aware of their Deaf employee’s unique access requirements. However, bosses should check in with them again when implementing working from home on a more permanent basis, as the employee may have some additional requests to make the transition easier.

All Deaf people are different and will have varying needs, for example Profoundly Deaf employees will prefer to access information and join discussions using online British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters and note takers, whereas others with hearing loss may prefer lip reading [although this can be challenging when communicating via video].

Video interpretation services do not come at a cost to the company and can be funded through the Access To Work [ATW] scheme. Many employers are not aware of this scheme, which not only benefits disabled people in work, but also makes a significant contribution to the UK economy.

Becoming Deaf aware

According to Action on Hearing Loss, the main reason Deaf employees are without support is because they feel colleagues lack the knowledge to help, and almost half of survey respondents said Deaf awareness  (“information on educating your colleagues or managers”) would help them fulfil their potential.

Therefore, employers should consider enrolling all hearing staff onto a Deaf awareness course, which can help facilitate effective communication between them and their Deaf colleague. The training covers everything from what Deafness is and how to cope with communication difficulties, to lessons in basic BSL and understanding Deaf culture more generally. This will help make remote working more positive and productive for all members of staff and allow Deaf employees to feel more understood and at ease when physically isolated from the rest of the work force.

Using the correct video platform

Businesses that have used video tools like Skype and Zoom during lockdown should reassess their communication needs before implementing a permanent home working structure. Not all video communication platforms have the same qualities – some are more secure than others – and it is vital that businesses opt for a reliable service that can fulfil their Deaf employee’s needs without compromising on security.

The InterpretersLive! service, powered by Starleaf, delivers real-time access to qualified and registered British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters using a secure encrypted and ISO27001 accredited, HD quality video platform.

The Starleaf platform has millions of users worldwide and is already familiar to the Deaf community in the UK, who use it to contact a range of organisations free of charge in their first or preferred language of BSL. Starleaf’s interoperability with other secure video platforms ensures that BSL interpreters can be brought into Teams, Skype for business and many other secure video platforms.

Deaf friendly technology

In addition to video interpreting services, a variety of other technologies can be used in the workplace to support Deaf employees. There are some specialist programmes available that are specifically designed to support people with hearing loss, but many of the mainstream programmes and equipment that an organisation already uses could also be adapted at little to no cost, including text messaging and email and a flashing screen on a mobile device when a sound alert is triggered, for example.

Whilst an end to the coronavirus pandemic may be in sight, it has been a catalyst for lasting change and, for many, the world of work may never be the same again. By recognising the barriers the digital world presents for Deaf employees and making adjustments, business owners can make remote working accessible for all and ensure the switch is a positive transformation for all.

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